Friday, August 9, 2013

The Stupid Guard Dilemma

The Trouble with Guards

A real trouble I have with my first drafts is the fact that my guards suck at their jobs. This is something that I heard quite a bit of as I hastily nailed plot to paper. No matter what they said, how adamant that they were, or if they actively questioned what was going on, they still were stupid. The protag skips past them and goes on to steal the MacGuffin.

I heard this several times, and I wanted to figure out how and why I wrote stupid guards in my drafts. My first instinct is that I didn't want to leave the cell unattended or the vast pile of loot unsupervised, which is intelligent on my part as who really wants their stuff just sitting around to get stolen or blown up? Because I had other things in my mind and bigger portions of plot that I needed to attend to, I still wanted my protags to be able to pass right through the guards and continue on with the story. There were castles to raze, gangster hideouts to blow up, and honestly what were a couple of guards going to do?

I was setting them up as a just another security device or booby trap. They were something to be easily outwitted and then ignored. What I didn't realize at the time was that I was introducing characters without actually treating them like it.

Realizing and Acknowledging Intelligence

So, what do I do with the fact that we are introducing intelligent characters as another obstacle? Give them a backstory. Until a character comes from somewhere and is going somewhere else, they don't own any action that they perform. The NPC (Non-Protagonist Character) is just a temporary personification of plot unless they are given the same weight of backstory as our protags. Once they are given their own wants and desires, then their actions begin to align properly.

A zealot for the cult who has given up everything to bring back their family, a Yakuza who secretly just wants to be a popstar, a rent-a-cop that is working extra shifts to help feed his kids, or a government spook that had her boyfriend shot in a drug trade. These aren't just guards anymore, they are characters. Any one of them is just as interesting as the main protag might be, and that gives them weight. Even the briefest of character sketches that are discovered make a world of difference.

These aren't just guards anymore. These are intelligent and motivated actors in the world. Now that we know that, it becomes a little more complicated. It becomes part of a bigger story.

Guns, Explosions, and Grey Moral Choices

Now that we have characters and have given them motivations, the rest becomes trivial... at least that what it appears to be. But these aren't just automated defences anymore, they are characters and that means that you now have to devote page space to develop them a little bit. In novels, this is easier because you can just write more. In short stories and flash, you really have to think about it. Every guard that you add needs to be a semi-fleshed out character and that really eats into what you can do with a limited word count. Some of the approaches I have considered (each with their own pros and cons) are Killing them, Distracting them, and Failing them.

"Shot first and ask questions later." Guards aren't an issue if your protags have no qualms about killing them quickly. This doesn't really fly for me. Looking over the stories that I have written, I realize that I have never shown a gun going off on the page. I don't like guns in fiction, or rather I am not inclined to write them. The actual weight of shooting someone is something that I don't take very lightly and maybe that's something I need to address in my own work. A way to do this more palatably is to flesh out the guards after they're dead.

"Make bigger problems." If your protags make a bigger mess somewhere else, the vault might be unguarded, but probably not. Breaking up the normal guard schedule because of what your protags do means that you can have the guards acting abnormally and in less or greater numbers. Throwing them off of their game can make them more or less likely to stop doing their job properly. Having different reactions to the same event also means that smart protags can take advantage of this. This really works best with fleshed out guards that can disagree with one another.

"Write a short tragedy." The one I'm most likely to follow through on. Give a guard a personality with a flaw. Have protag realize it, or not realize it, and then exploit that flaw for the guard's downfall. Creates subtext, flavors your protag, and might create something more dynamic than just a regular shoot 'em up. This does require more weight to a scene, but that just means that you have more text to set the tone of the piece in.

"Where'd they go?" If your protags evade the guards, then the guards might be looking for them. An early success does not mean that the guards are dealt with for good and that goes with any problem that the protags face. Reintroducing them as a recurring threat ups the stakes and gives tension. It also means that the guards have learned, thereby creating a mini character arc.

This is not an exhaustive list, and none of these are prescriptive for any draft problems. They are merely some of the options and alternatives that could be brought up. The best problems are ones that don't have a clear right and wrong choice, or ones that might make the right choice far more difficult than the wrong choice. That is an entire other discussion though. The author has the best sense for what the characters are likely to do, and what their choices will do to them. Motivations are the name of the game.


When you create flat characters, characters with just names, or even just cardboard cutouts with the word "Guard" spray painted across them, you cannot give a character actions that do not fit with the characters motivations. Guards guard things, and so if they stop guarding things, they better have a damn good reason to do so. Making them more than just guards means that they can stop being guards for a second and let their other motivations take hold.

"Wait Patrick! We already knew that," you might say. "I write all my characters with complex motivations."

You might be right and this is just another silly problem that I have. It is a personal dilemma of my drafts that often goes overlooked when I'm initially plotting and writing. It is too easy to write characters without actually writing them as characters. Taking time and giving people reasons to perform the actions that the plot demands takes actual effort that I'm not always willing to give a first draft. This is something I prefer to fill in during later drafts, and with the consequence that I might need to shift the entire plot around to make it believable.

In short, never lose sight of any character's motivations during a conflict. (Especially the motivation of the security staff.)


  1. My husband was haunted - HAUNTED - by finding a hot dog and cotton candy on the body of a guard he'd slain in "Bioshock Infinite". "This guy was just at the fair," he said. "He must have been waiting to enjoy that hot dog."

    - the game developers meant it to be a bonus - food in the game gives you vitality points - but my husband saw it as tragedy. And I think that is the far better reading. :)

  2. Also makes me think of my favorite bit in Iron Man 3 - the guard who drops his gun, raises his hands, and says, "I don't even like working here. These people are weird."